Sunday, September 10, 2006

technology turns against me part 2: Windows Media Center

OK, so I know I'm the last loser in the world not using the new Vista Media Center. I bought an hp z552 and it came preloaded with MCE2005, and since my wife is its primary user, I can't just go installing whatever I want. That said, the thing seems to be testing me to try and make me figure how far it can push me before I snap. I love Media Center and I love having a functional computer in the living room but this thing is like a child that I am slowly watching spin away into delinquency. OK, I'm being overly dramatic, so let me just post the various things that it's doing:


Not recording

This is the newest and most disturbing trend. My wife appeared on the Saturday Today Show a few weeks back and had set it up to record as she always does before her appearance. (She is on TV usually once a month.) Of course it was too early in the morning for me to catch her live so I didn't even think about getting up. When she returned home, I was awake, so we sat down to watch. Nothing. No trace of the fact that it was supposed to have recorded. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I at first attempted to blame her for not correctly setting it up. Foolish choice on my part. She is the one who uses the Media Center most of all, she sure as hell knows how to set up a damn 20-minute recording. A quick look at Event Viewer showed something I'd never seen before: "Manual Recording was not recorded due to a temporary failure caused by either a system malfunction or a power loss." So for whatever reason, it just didn't record. And I was in the doghouse because I'd insinuated that she didn't know how to schedule a recording... later, something similar happened when she turned on the TV to find that a program just wasn't recording, and then had to press Record to kick it off. Its error message was: "Recording of [a TV show that I shall not name on the blog for fear of embarrassed wife] began late on 8/23/2006 10:13:57 PM due to a temporary failure caused by either a system malfunction or a power loss and stopped on 8/23/2006 11:02:54 PM." How can this be happening after 16 months of essentially trouble-free operation? And, do so few Media Center users look at their event logs that these errors are essentially invisible on Google?


Losing time

One possible explanation for the above may be this even more annoying problem, which is that the Media Center stopped maintaining accurate time. Each suspension would lead to a 10-minute or so loss or gain in time. Once it resumed and was just about exactly three hours behind (and no, I checked and it hadn't reverted to Pacific time). I checked the Internet Time tab on the Time & Date control panel applet, and when I tried to update from both time.windows.com and time.nist.gov I received some error telling me that it didn't have a handle to tell me what the error was. So maybe whatever service gets the time from the internet was broken? But what would that have to do with a system malfunction or power loss?


Frequent failures to download the guide

A final possibly related problem was that every time I'd turn on the Media Center, I'd see a tray icon that said that "Media Center is downloading the Guide" or something like that. Annoyingly, that tray icon never seemed to go away. For the same two-week period, the event log filled with messages like this: "Event Info: Unable to link service to lineup. File validation error - mismatched guide package. The Guide listings service is not currently available. Please try again later." I set up my cable provider again through the main Media Center "Set up TV" wizard, and still got the messages. Then, they disappeared.


I know I rebooted the Media Center during the month I had the above three problems, since that's the easiest way to troubleshoot a problem that there is. And the fact that it just kind of went away makes me wonder if there was some internet thing going on causing the problem -- like maybe time.windows.com was down or was giving unexpected responses, and/or the Guide download file format was messed up for a week. So far things have been recording and the time has been correct when the Media Center resumes, so I'll keep my fingers crossed.


Here are some other problems I've been having:


Exiting the Media Center app before standby

I somehow believe this is either an HP patch that caused this or a Microsoft patch, but I have to say that I don't like it. Basically, every time we return from standby, it shows the desktop for a second, then the green button appears in the middle of the screen, and Media Center launches with its loud syntho-horn noise. I suspect this is an HP patch to "fix" the problem where the front-panel display can't change from some embarrassing crap you watched last night upon return from standby. But the noise is driving my wife nuts, particularly when the thing turns itself on unexpectedly to download the Guide or something while she's sitting right next to it using her computer. I don't care that much about the display, I'd rather have the old behavior back.


"Overheating" and blowing its fans loudly

I recognize that as a smallish, usually quiet device that lives on a shelf that is enclosed on three sides, the z552 has different cooling issues than my desktop computer does. (Which sounds like an air conditioner when I am playing UT2004, which is often.) But basically, these days, the z552 can't play a movie or record a TV show for more than like 10 minutes without blowing its fans really loudly for a few minutes. It's really loud and really annoys my wife. (I think she thinks she has "done something wrong" to the machine to cause it to do this. Hehehheh) I wish I knew how to monitor the temperature to see if it really needs to be blowing air or if somehow the tolerances for when it kicks off the fans could be adjusted. I know I could probably take the upper shelf out of my entertainment cabinet, but that would look even more ghetto than it does now (with the sticking out of the cabinet an inch or so 'cause it's not deep enough).


Codec issues

Finally, I will admit something without going into much detail. I download movies and TV shows via BitTorrent. Making it easy to share them with my wife so she could watch them when I was out of town or we could easily watch them together was a primary driver behind the purchase of the Media Center. The lure of buying an HDTV (Proview RX326) was that we could watch the programs in really good quality. Because these files use various encodings that were not part of the Microsoft standard or for which Microsoft cannot send a codec on demand (DivX, Xvid, AC3 or OGG sound encoding, etc.), additional non-Microsoft codecs must be installed. As I had a slight acquaintance with the packager from a forum I used to frequent, I had used DefilerPak since 2002 on my other computers, so I installed it on the z552 in May 2005 and it had worked fine for me ever since. However, I had always noticed that HD-quality recordings had extremely difficult-to-hear dialogue. The voices would be very low, but then whenever there was music, explosions, cars revving engines, etc. they would be very loud. I knew this was due to the fact that HD content was typically encoded with surround-sound audio, and I only had two speakers and a subwoofer. Media Center knew I had a 2-speaker system when I set it up, but still did not know how to balance the mix appropriately so that voices could be audible. This became more pronounced when I bought the DViCO FusionHDTV 5 USB, and found that even legitimate over-the-air HDTV broadcasts had the same problem with inaudible voices. Finally, I started to poke around in the DefilerPak settings, but could find nothing to set up channels. So, I figured, why not upgrade to the latest version of DefilerPak? Bad idea. Basically, nothing would play after that -- Media Center-recorded TV, movies with Xvid, regular movies downloaded like 5 years ago, etc. After messing around, I ended up with a combination of ffdshow and AC3filter, and that basically got me back in business. Most importantly, I found that I could use the AC3filter control panel to jack the "Voice" (center) channel to +20dB, and then I finally resolved my sound problem! But a new problem introduced was some jerkiness in certain downloaded materials. I don't want to mess things up by playing around with codecs again, but if it continues to be a problem once a certain half-hour pay cable show returns to the air, I am going to have to dig in and see what happens.


OK, this post is long enough. If any of you people can give any suggestions in the comments, I would truly appreciate it…


--sbreck


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Comments:
Interesting,
I have MCE2005 running on XP and I am seeing a lot of what you are. Most interesting is the time issue. I had ignored it before but I get quite often warnings in the event log about not being able to synchronize with the time source.
 
I too had the time issue. After it working fine for about a year I noticed that I needed to enable a port on the firwall to allow time to pass. Found that out on the internet and opened port and them time was fixed. I however have a new problem now. My media center extender stopped funtioning in the begining of Febuarary. Talked to Linksys *No Help At ALL*. Said screw it baught a Xbox 360 worked fine for 2 weeks now it does the same thing the other one does TV will not play live or recorded, it plays with a 5 second delay between words. Some video does same thing other video plays just fine also my FM radio is messed up. Got it working a day ago once removeing my HDTV card, then tried to install the legit drivers not working again remo0ved it still dosn't work. Still working on it if you got any suggestions?
 
I switched to Vista and so far it's been OK about recording. I don't have any extenders, unfortunately. Without much more info, I can tell you I just solved my stuttering problem by uninstalling the Front Panel Display service. Now the thing just scrolls "Welcome to HP Digital Entertainment Center" constantly but TV plays normally without halting so that's way better. I also have been restarting the machine every night (scheduled task that launches c:\windows\system32\shutdown /r /f) and that's been helping out. Other than that, try removing all third-party installations one at a time?
 
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